Music is my poetry. Some people have Frost and Browning—I have Foreigner and Bon Jovi. For decades, I’ve turned to songs by my favorite singers to give me inspiration, understanding and sometimes even guidance as I’ve faced situations new to me but, perhaps, old hat to the musicians. I was recently on a Dennis DeYoung (of Styx) kick in anticipation of seeing him in concert last month, and I wrote about following our writing dreams, using a few insights from his 1984 single “Don’t Wait for Heroes.”
I remember that song well when it first came out. I was a senior in high school and had no real idea what I was going to do with my life. I had all kinds of big, unrealistic (at the time) dreams I held in secret, but no way of achieving them because I just didn’t know myself that well back then—like a writer who hasn’t written enough words to know his or her own voice yet. But DeYoung’s lyrics stuck with me and, as simple as they were, they were there to give me a helpful perspective on pursuing a passion when I was ready to draw wisdom from them.
This month, another song has been spinning on the LP turntable inside my brain, and it speaks to my writing resolution for the year—one of our current Girlfriend topics. The truth is that my resolution doesn’t, actually, have anything to do with drafting a novel. It has to do with the world outside of the stories in my head. Being naturally Type A, my fantasy is to achieve that elusive sense of peace and balance, so I can participate fully in this writing life, but not cross the line into the realm of unhealthy obsession. Not let the characteristic chaos of the industry consume me, create an unending loop of self doubt or throw off my internal compass. It took a long time to find my writing voice, but it seems to be taking even longer to find my unshakable author center. And, sadly, I suck at that whole Zen thing.
For those of you who remember the big hits of 1976, the song I've been humming lately hasn't been Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” or even Aerosmith’s “Dream On” but, rather, Boston’s classic “Peace of Mind.”
“Now if you’re feelin’ kinda low ‘bout the dues you’ve been paying, future’s coming much too slow, and you wanna run but somehow you just keep on stayin’, can’t decide on which way to go…”
Yeah. “I understand about indecision,” all right. The publishing industry is one where many of us are left second-guessing every professional choice we’ve ever made—weekly, daily, hourly sometimes. Where hurry-up-and-wait may not always be the name of the game, but it’s often the subtitle. We work our tails off to follow up on a requested submission or a great writing opportunity and, then, are stuck in limbo while the person with acquisition power tries to juggle everything on his or her desk so they can (eventually) get back to us. And while we wait, we worry and wonder: Did I do enough? Was it good? Will they like it? Would it have been better if I’d changed___? How long will it take before I know?
As for the line in the song’s chorus, “People livin’ in competition,” well, I hardly need to address that here. Any aspiring or published writer knows just how tough it is to both break in and stay in. I’m in awe of authors who’ve been doing this since the ‘70s and ‘80s and have asked a few how they stay balanced. How they manage not to live in a near-constant state of anxiety over the ever-changing industry, the stunningly heavy writing/promoting workload and the emotional rollercoaster of professional reviews/critique partner feedback/agent suggestions/editorial revision notes, all while trying to have a life outside of this. How they've learned to calm their minds amidst the mayhem and uncertainty and find a sense of peace...
One wonderful NYT-bestselling author, who sold her first novel almost 30 years ago and is still actively publishing today, told me she just removes herself from as many stressors as possible. Refuses to read reviews—ever. Doesn’t engage with any person or group that strikes her as crazy-making. Follows her own writing process and ignores anyone who tries to tell her that she should try to tailor her style to anything other than what works best for her. And she reminds herself of this inherent irony in publishing: that it’s an industry in which nobody really has any control, but just about everyone involved with it—from editors to agents to writers, etc.—are, as she phrased it, “overachieving control freaks.” That struck me as very funny, but painfully accurate.
So, being an unapologetic quoter of song lyrics, I bow to the genius of Boston's songwriter Tom Scholz, who managed to capture a feeling so human and so universal that it rings true for me now, and it's applicable to my life in ways I never could have imagined when I first heard it on the radio. Granted, I was in 4th grade at the time but, for a future writer and an incurable observer, the line “Lots of people out to make-believe they're livin', can't decide who they should be” was a warning that made sense even then.
Today, I'm taking a deep breath, getting myself outside for a brisk walk and making time to talk with a few people I care about—basically, remembering to live a little in the 3D world. Peace of mind, for me, anyway, is not dwelling in the past so much or fretting endlessly about things that can't be changed. Realizing I did the best I could with whatever resources, skills and time I had available to me. And just focusing on what I can do right now to make tomorrow a bit better.
Or, as Scholz once urged, “Take a look ahead...look ahead.”
Is there a popular song that you've found to be brimming with unexpected wisdom? An era of music or a particular musical genre that speaks to you most?
Marilyn Brant is a chocolate addict, a music junkie and the award-winning women's fiction author of According to Jane (2009), Friday Mornings at Nine (2010) and A Summer in Europe (coming November 29, 2011), all from Kensington Books. When no one's watching, she pretends she's in a rock-n-roll band and sings (very badly) in the car.